The politics of presidential libraries
George W. Bush is poised to choose Southern Methodist University in Dallas as the place for his library and museum. Lots of students and alumni are pleased, and several other schools, including Baylor and Texas A&M, wanted the library. The presidential libraries can teach something about presidential policies and politics the students might not otherwise learn. This is what the academic discipline of a liberal education is supposed to be about.
Presidential libraries are something else, too, shrines to burnish the memory and legacy of presidents. Except for the Nixon library, they’re administered by the National Archives at taxpayer expense. They’re a rich source of information that is otherwise hidden amid the politics, something you might expect every professor to dream of. But not at SMU. In an astonishing admission of ignorance of how the world works, even the world on a cloistered campus, 150 of the university’s 600 professors say they’re afraid academic freedom and political independence would be compromised by the arrival of new information. One professor frets that the public might confuse the Bush Museum with the university. (Only if they can’t read.)
Professors, at least in theory, are dedicated to opening the minds of students, to teach the intellectual discipline and rigor that enables the young scholar to make discriminating judgments. Access to information, even information about how a president made the momentous decisions over his eight years in office, is what education is all about. This, alas, is a naive view on many campuses, where learning is dumbed down to make it fit the professor’s own cramped understanding of politics.
This controversy is focused now on SMU, a private church school catering to upscale Texas families (and once a mighty college football power), but it goes to the heart of what’s wrong on many other campuses, where the focus is less on education for citizenship than on forcefeeding pre-digested and distilled ideology posing as learning. Universities differ in the ways they suffer this post-modern malady, but many — and maybe most of the most prestigious schools — have moved a long way from John Stuart Mill’s idea that a liberal education should be concerned with civic education.
“The proper business of a university,” Mill wrote, “is to give us information and training, and help us to form our own belief in a manner worthy of intelligent beings, who seek for truth at all hazards, and demand to know all the difficulties, in order that they may be better qualified to find, or recognize the most satisfactory mode of resolving them.”
To her credit, Rita Kirk, chairman of the department of communications and public affairs at SMU, observed that the “wall” between her university and the Bush library would encourage a “robust debate” over politics and policy. Debate, after all, is what learning is about.
American parents pay an enormous price for the education of their children, up to $50,000 a year for four years for a bachelor’s de- gree at the elite universities. The novelist Tom Wolfe observes that parents who are focused on getting their kids into Harvard pay little attention to what they learn after they get there. The schools with the best academic reputations are not necessarily those that actually impart the best education.
A new guide to colleges and universities sets out to help parents become better informed. The In- tercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) has published “All American Colleges: Top Schools for Conservatives, Old-Fashioned Liberals, and People of Faith,” to identify colleges that most closely adhere to Mill’s vision of education. The guide looks at schools that require not only the study of the works of dead white men (Shakespeare, Milton, Plato) held in contempt in much of the academy today, but the crucial contemporary issues that are often ignored. The guide asks whether a particular university provides an environment for expanding “intellectual friendships,” where men and women easily debate opposing ideas, where teachers encourage the student to examine unpopular opinions.
American history is the “discipline” that suffers most from indoctrination. Fashionable historians swing from denouncing America for past sins to championing the contributions, often little more than myths, of newly minted ideological heroes. This guide’s persistent theme is that the properly educated man must know “what he knows and what he doesn’t know.” He seeks after “the good life” which does not refer to popular culture but to the “habits of consideration, courtesy, and fairmindedness.”
This sounds quaint today, but it was regarded as essential in earlier times as an ideal, if honored mostly in the breach. A liberal education is concerned with the process of learning, the ability to analyze ideas critically. Wherever the president places his library, the students on that campus ought to be able to do that. We owe them that much.
Suzanne Fields, a columnist for The Washington Times, is nationally syndicated.